Illinois might join the country’s league of states adopting land use reforms

Illinois House Representative Kam Buckner (26th district) has introduced three bills that would adopt land use reforms across all or a lot of the state. This is a trend happening across the United States to address twin crises of low housing construction and limited affordable housing caused in large part by individual municipalities restricting new housing.

I’ve summarized the three proposed bills below. If you would like to help get these adopted, join the Urban Environmentalists of Illinois.

Allowing accessory dwelling units

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are apartments and small backyard houses that are built to provide on-site housing for family members, or generate additional income. They are usually allowed by amending zoning codes to add design parameters that treat them differently than apartments, detached, or attached houses and exempt them from typical density limitations inherent in nearly all zoning codes.

Buckner filed HB4213 in November 2023, which would disallow any unit of local government in Illinois from prohibiting ADUs, which most governments in Illinois do through various zoning rules (the main one being that a residentially-zoned parcel is only allowed to have a single building).

A bill like this has already been adopted in California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire (at a minimum).

Coach houses are one type of small backyard house, common in Chicago. This one in Lakeview was built in 2023.

Lifting parking mandates

Buckner submitted HB4638 in January 2024 to get local governments out of the business of forcing a minimum number of car parking spaces at developments near transit, which are currently established without any rationale. You might say the amount of space cities require businesses and apartment buildings to provide is based on vibes.

My letter to the editor describing the benefits of not requiring so much parking everywhere was published in The Daily Line this month.

There are so many better things we can do for a community than dedicating land for car parking.

Allowing more than one home per lot

Most municipal zoning codes in Illinois have a zoning district called something like “R1” that allows one detached house on a lot, often setting a very large minimum lot size that must be assembled before construction can begin. Municipal leaders then apply R1 broadly within their municipalities’ boundaries, effectively banning condos, townhouses, row houses, and apartments – the most affordable kinds of homes to buy and rent.

Buckner introduced HB4795 in February 2024; it would apply to the state’s eight largest cities and require them to allow at least a “duplex” (two-unit house) on every parcel that allows a detached single-family house.

Naperville would be one of the covered municipalities; the city allows two-family dwellings in R2 zoning districts and slightly more homes per lot in the higher-number R zoning districts. Their B1 neighborhood shopping district also allows multi-family housing.

My letter to the editor in support of this bill was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on February 26, 2024.

But the Naperville zoning map shows how prevalent R1 and its friends the “E” estate districts are: the vast majority of the city is zoned to allow only single detached houses.

Letter to the editor: Illinois cities shouldn’t have the ability to impose parking mandates

My letter to the editor was published as guest commentary in The Daily Line

State Rep. Kam Buckner’s bill to stop cities from mandating specific numbers of off-street car parking at homes and businesses in transit-served areas should be celebrated. These mandates increase the cost of housing, take up land that could be used for just about anything else (like, more housing), and, because of how they facilitate more driving and require building more curb cuts than is truly necessary, make it harder to walk, bike, or ride the bus to run errands.

A massive parking garage at the new Malcolm X College on the Near West Side of Chicago.

I rent my home and I like the idea that there are only enough car parking spaces in the building for people who really need to have a car close by and are willing to pay for it. This means that the cost of providing parking for everyone in the building is not added onto my rent. 

Currently, every municipality in Illinois with a zoning code has a different idea of how many car parking spaces are required at bars, restaurants, townhouses, bowling alleys, and cemeteries. City planners don’t have the training or expertise to project the demand for parking. In other words, they don’t know more than home builders and businesses do about how many parking spaces each project needs.

In the place of mandates, cities should let home builders and businesses choose how much parking they believe they need to serve their tenants, employees, and customers.

By prioritizing car ownership and usage, parking mandates perpetuate reliance on fossil fuels and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, removing such requirements can incentivize the use of public transportation, cycling, and walking, consequently reducing traffic congestion and air pollution in our cities.

Without parking mandates near transit service, cities will be freer to allocate land in ways that support sustainable transportation, including making room for more housing to be located near transit and in walking distance to essential shops and services.

I look forward to debating the specifics of Buckner’s bill and getting it passed this year. 

-Steven Vance, Chicago, urban planner

[P.S. Buckner has another bill, HB4795, to prevent Illinois’s eight largest cities from having residential zoning districts that disallow multiple units.]

Chicago proposes prohibiting gas for heating & cooking in new construction homes

Update: The Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance (CABO) was sent to the rules committee today, 1/24/24. It will need 26 votes to be re-referred to the environmental protection and energy committee. [Per Heather Cherone]

Ordinance: O2024-0007305

Name: Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance (CABO)
Purpose: Improve indoor air quality, reduce heating costs, and reduce the city’s contribution to climate change
Mechanism: By amending the Chicago Construction Codes, new construction residences would not be able to have most types of combustion [1] used as the source of energy for cooking, water heating, and space heating [2].

The bulk of the code amendment is shown below.

The Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance would amend Chicago Construction Codes section 14N-R6.

This follows a previous building code amendment that required that any new construction housing built with combustion appliances also has the necessary electricity infrastructure – like higher amp circuits and higher voltage outlets – to enable swapping appliances for electric-only models. The Chicago Energy Transformation Code took effect November 1, 2022.

Many buildings are already being built all-electric because of the cost savings for builders and tenants, simpler designs, and the desire by some tenants to have cleaner indoor air. ComEd has an electric homes program that pays builders up to $5,000 per unit for going all-electric.

I believe that most tenants will realize at least a small improvement in their living arrangements by moving from a place that uses gas for heating and cooking to a place that is all-electric. In fact, I think they will ultimately appreciate the lower energy costs – the most significant cost change is the lack of a $30-50 monthly customer charge from Peoples Gas.

Additionally, much of the costs of buying and installing electric appliances in new construction homes (and renovated homes) is being subsidized by the Inflation Reduction Act.

The ordinance’s next steps are to be assigned to a City Council committee, passed out of that committee, and passed out of City Council. The ordinance’s standards would be effective 12 months after passage and apply to building permit applications filed on and after that date.

Show your support for the ordinance by contacting your alderperson, and submitting petitions from the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition and Sierra Club Illinois.

[Exceptions]

[1] Appliances that use a fuel source that when combusted emit less than 25 kilograms of CO2 per million BTU would be permitted, as would the combustion of wood in a fireplace or for cooking purposes.
[2] Combustion fuel used for “emergency and standby electricity” is excepted.

Show expansion of transit networks over the decades using Transit Explorer

Yonah Freemark just launched the biggest expansion of transit network mapping on Transit Explorer and I built a new feature for TE that allows users to visualize the size of a network by decade from 1970 to today.

When looking at a region of the world, change the era of transit network that you’re seeing by selecting a decade from the dropdown menu under the “Change the era” heading. In a moment, the map will automatically refresh.

I’ll show you three cities:

  • Salt Lake City
  • Hong Kong
  • São Paulo

Salt Lake City

The Utah Transit Authority opened its first modern light rail line in 1999 from Salt Lake City to the southern suburb of Sandy. It opened the second line, from downtown Salt Lake City to the University of Utah, in 2001, in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Some games and ceremonies were held at the university. FrontRunner commuter rail opened in 2008, and the third light rail line, to the airport, opened in 2011 and various line extensions opened in 2013. A BRT route that opened in 2018 in Provo is also mapped but not shown while a BRT route in Salt Lake City is shown under construction in 2024.

View Salt Lake City on Transit Explorer

Hong Kong

In 1970, the only rail transit that Hong Kong had were a tramway on Hong Kong Island and the East Rail Line, which opened in 1910 and was electrified in 1983. Every decade since there was a new line or two on the Hong Kong MTR network, culminating in the ten lines you see in 2024.

View Hong Kong on Transit Explorer

São Paulo

In 1970, São Paulo’s metropolitan network, Metrô, didn’t exist, but it had six regional train lines operated by three railroads – these kinds of trains are shown in brown on Transit Explorer. The metro, shown in blue, began in 1974, and now has six lines (including one monorail line) while the regional train network was modified to five lines. São Paulo saw its first bus rapid transit (BRT) line added in 1988, but added four more BRT lines since then – just five of the over 900 bus routes operated by EMTU.

View São Paulo on Transit Explorer

Chicago City Council could end up voting to ban new dollar stores

Update: This ordinance passed out of licensing committee on Monday, January 22, 2024. Also, the link to the ordinance is not working and I can’t find another way to link to it on the City Clerk’s legislation database. The version that passed out of committee reduces the radius from 2 miles to 1 mile and reduces the threshold for fresh and frozen food to avoid the radius minimum from 40 percent to 10 percent.

Update 2, February 22, 2024: A substitute ordinance was passed by City Council yesterday; the thresholds described in the paragraph above were established but the distance separation clause was amended so that only dollar stores of the same owner are banned within one mile. In other words, and this is dependent on the definition of “controlling person” in the code at section 4-4-005, a Dollar General could not open within one mile of a Dollar General or a Dollar Tree, but a Family Dollar could. A new map is shown at the end.

Ald. O’Shea (19th Ward) has proposed an ordinance with 35 cosponsors that would ban dollar stores within two miles of another dollar store and within 1/8th mile of an “R” zoning district. The ordinance number is O2023-0004978; read the PDF of the proposed ordinance.

The ordinance would amend the zoning code in chapter 17 as well as add business license regulations in chapter 4 of the Municipal Code of Chicago. The new business licensing section would establish strict rules on “excessive loud noises” and trash accumulation at dollar stores, and even regulate what people outside the store could be doing, as well as require a site plan review by the planning and transportation departments (something usually only required when there is a driveway, drive-through, or larger development).

The city codes would include dollar stores under the new definition of “small box retailer”, which excludes Walgreens and gas station mini marts.

Specifically, “small-box retailer means a retail store (a) with a floor area between 5,000 and 17,500 square feet; (b) that sells at retail an assortment of physical goods, products, or merchandise directly to the consumer, including food or beverages for off-premises consumption, household products, personal grooming and health products, and other consumer goods; (c) that continuously offers and advertises a majority of the items in their inventory for sale at a price less than $5.00 per item; and (d) that does not: (i) contain a prescription pharmacy, (ii) sell gasoline or diesel fuel, (iii) primarily sell specialty food items, or (iv) dedicate less than 5% of shelf space and display areas to food sales.”

The proposal’s purpose is spelled out in the preamble, which makes some judgements about the prevalence of dollar stores in Chicago.

WHEREAS, The City of Chicago (“City”) is a home rule unit of government under Article VII, Section 6(a) of the 1970 Constitution of the State of Illinois and, as such, may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs, including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare; and

WHEREAS, There is a proliferation of small-box retailers, such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar (which is owned by Dollar Tree), and Dollar General, in urban areas, including the City, where small-box retailers are clustered in and around South and West Side neighborhoods; and

WHEREAS, Although small-box retailers can fill a need in communities lacking basic retail services, growing evidence suggests small-box retailers are not merely a byproduct of this economic distress, they can often be a cause of it; and

WHEREAS, By saturating communities, particularly majority-Black urban neighborhoods, with multiple stores, small-box retailers’ business strategy often makes it impossible for independent and local grocery stores to open, or, indeed remain open, in a community; and

WHEREAS, Small-box retailers are not a meaningful alternative to local grocery stores, often devoting minimal, if any, floor space to fresh, wholesome foods, and offering low-cost, single serving, highly processed foods that are in actuality much more expensive per ounce; and

WHEREAS, In addition to these negative economic impacts, small-box retailers also tend to attract higher inc dences of crime, theft, and other negative effects on the public health, safety, and welfare, suc as littering and the accumulation of waste far exceeding the dumpster space provided by small-box retailers; and

WHEREAS, Regulating small-box retailers is necessary, desirable, and in the public interest by promoting stronger, more resilient neighborhoods and protecting the public health, safety, and welfare of our Cit ; now, therefore:

Natalie Moore wrote a column in the Chicago Sun-Times about some of the impacts of dollar stores in the city.

Ramifications

If this ordinance went into effect, new dollar stores would only be allowed in the green areas of Chicago. Additional areas would open up if the proposed dollar store would dedicate ≥40 percent of shelf space to fresh or frozen food. This map only considers “Big Dollar” stores and not independent dollar stores that might meet the parameters in the proposed ordinance.

The map below shows 150 locations of Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar stores. Family Dollar is part of Dollar Tree.

The green areas show the parts of Chicago where a new dollar store that follows the default “two mile minimum” rule would be allowed. The proposed ordinance has a provision that if 40 percent or more of shelf space is dedicated to fresh or frozen food then that new dollar store only has to be one mile away from any other dollar store.

It’s possible that dollar store companies could erect stores that are smaller or larger than the floor area standard in the proposed ordinance that would otherwise capture them into the “small box retailer” definition.

A map based on the approved substitute ordinance, showing 1 mile buffer areas, is shown below.